The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

2016 #73
John McTiernan | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Once upon a time, John McTiernan was an action auteur, known for films that sat comfortably on the “mainstream modern classics” scale, like Predator, The Hunt for Red October, and, most of all, Die Hard. Then he made a couple of bombs (Rollerball and Basic), before ending up in a career hell of his own making thanks to some protracted legal battles. This thriller remake, starring Pierce Brosnan at the height of his Bond tenure (it was made between Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough), is the once-eminent director’s last well-regarded film.

Brosnan plays the titular Thomas Crown, an ultra-wealthy New York entrepreneur whose hobby is stealing art from museums. His latest theft attracts the attention of the insurance company’s investigator, Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), who is clever enough to see past the fancy gadgets and gang of Eastern European crooks placed to take the fall. So begins a game of cat and mouse, as Banning tries to catch the thief, while he tries to woo her, and she tries to resist his charms — while also using her womanly wiles to try to ensnare him.

It’s the latter that practically kicks The Thomas Crown Affair into the realms of the ‘erotic thriller’. Throw in a couple more sex scenes (and a few less high-profile contributors) and you’d have late-night TV filler. There’s virtually no swearing and certainly no violence, but with some gratuitous boobs you’ve got a 15/R-rated flick. The film doesn’t really need such titillation to attract attention, because it’s a strong cat-and-mouse thriller in its own right. On the other hand, it doesn’t shy away from sexuality and the part that could play in such a ‘game’, so in that respect it’s more plausible than a million other neutered movies.

McTiernan’s action background comes to the fore in a pair of extended heist scenes at either end of the movie, which are surely the standout parts. The seductions and plot twists in between these bookends are certainly entertaining and may even keep you guessing, but it’s the heists that pack the most entertainment. They’re the kind of thing we don’t see so much nowadays, at least not in mainstream movies, because any sequence designed to provide excitement is a fight of some kind, and most of those are shot in the shaky-cam style. There’s none of that palaver here, just perfectly choreographed cutting between the various players in each heist, and some well-chosen music — as if being ably to do awesome stuff accompanied by the James Bond Theme wasn’t cool enough, here Brosnan gets to do the same to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman.

Those scenes are reason enough to watch the film, in my opinion, but that’s not to denigrate what comes in between. Brosnan is mainly just charm personified as Crown, a kind of “Bond gone naughty” playboy (without the, y’know, murdering), while Russo makes Banning’s back-and-forth umming-and-ahing seem largely plausible, whereas in other hands it might’ve just come across as inconsistent character writing. Denis Leary and Frankie Faison bolster the entertainment as the pair of NYPD cops forced to work with Branning, while Faye Dunaway (star of the original film) appears in a handful of tacked-on cameo scenes as Crown’s psychiatrist.

The Thomas Crown Affair may not be the best film on any of its principals’ CVs (well, except perhaps for Russo’s), but it’s a consistently enjoyable light thriller with a couple of particularly memorable sequences and a fun central dynamic. Apparently it’s better than the original, too. There’s long been talk of a sequel, but it seems to have gone the way of McTiernan’s career, which is a shame.

4 out of 5

This review is part of 1999 Week.

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